Precedents provide no reason for optimism on Iraq

January 23, 2004|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - The Bush administration's attempt to remake Iraq has collided with a few unforeseen obstacles, including growing doubts at home.

As casualties mount, a majority of Americans now say the war in Iraq was not worth the cost. Fortunately, history can provide guidance on how to cope with such situations, based on past experiences that have turned out well. The only problem is finding one.

Richard Perle, the influential conservative defense analyst and adviser to the administration, has been on tour to talk about his new book, An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror. Mr. Perle thinks that, contrary to the impression given by all those bombs going off and Shiites massing to protest against us, American policy is working just fine. But when he is asked for precedents that suggest the United States can succeed at occupying and transforming Iraq, he replies with airy nonchalance, "I don't think there are relevant precedents."

Actually, recent history is replete with examples of military powers intervening in other countries and finding themselves faced with violent opposition. What Mr. Perle might say if he wants to be precise is that there are no precedents that bode well for this undertaking.

Milt Bearden, a 30-year CIA veteran and former manager of clandestine operations, has surveyed the record and notes a sobering fact about the 20th century: "Every nationalist-based insurgency against a foreign occupation ultimately succeeded." Not some of them; not most of them. Every one of them.

The closest parallel might be Lebanon, which Israel invaded in 1982 to eliminate a terrorist threat, destroy Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization and install a friendly government next door. When they arrived, Israeli soldiers were pelted with flowers by grateful Lebanese. But soon they found themselves surrounded by enemies.

In 1984, there were more than 900 attacks on Israeli forces. These, reported The New York Times, included "hit-and-run ambushes by Shiite gunmen hiding in banana groves, roadside bombs manufactured with homemade explosives and set off by radio signals built from components of children's walkie-talkies, rocket-propelled grenades fired from rooftops with timers made from old watches, cooking gas bottles filled with dynamite placed by the side of the road, old Russian-made mines and artillery shells stuffed into bags of nails, radio bombs, cigarette-pack bombs, car bombs and trip-wire bombs, suicides and homicides."

Sound familiar? By the time Israel retreated in 1985, the war had claimed more than 1,200 Israeli lives, and the commander of the last unit leaving Lebanon remarked bitterly, "We did this three years too late."

There are other precedents, and they are equally ominous. France fought a long and futile war to keep control of Algeria, killing hundreds of thousands of Algerians before giving up. After sacrificing some 58,000 lives in Vietnam, the United States finally abandoned the country to its fate. The Soviets sent the mighty Red Army into Afghanistan but left bloodied and bowed. In each case, the locals prevailed against a vastly superior foe.

President Bush insists that American resolve will see us through. "America has always been willing to do what it takes for what is right," he declared in his State of the Union address. "The United States of America will never be intimidated by thugs and assassins."

Oh, really? Has he forgotten that we chose to cut our losses in Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia? Has he failed to notice how little we've done lately "for what is right" in Afghanistan, which has reverted to the control of lawless warlords?

It's apparent from the record that outside powers faced with persistent, violent resistance are bound to give up sooner or later. That's not because they are weak or cowardly. It's because they lack a sufficient interest to justify the cost.

The outsiders always have the option of packing up and heading out. The insurgents have nowhere else to go. So they usually have far greater staying power. Even if they can't win, they can outlast the enemy - and that's enough.

The president may claim that Americans will pay any price and bear any burden to bring freedom and democracy to a country that is not their own. No doubt some Iraqis believe that. Plenty of Vietnamese boat people once believed it, too.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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